Even if you don’t recognise Alan Howarth’s name, you’ve probably heard his work.
In 1978, Howarth found himself going from his job as a touring synth tech for jazz fusion band Weather Report to auditioning for a job as a sound effects creator on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. His task was to use his synthesizer expertise – self-taught through years of jamming in bands as a teenager and then working in a music shop in Cleveland – to create the sound of the Starship Enterprise going from Warp 1 to Warp 7. He used a Teac 1/4” tape machine and a Prophet-5 synthesizer and created the sound that would end up on the finished movie. Howarth was hired on the spot.
In the years that followed, Howarth was asked to design sound effects for some of the most memorable films of the 1980s: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist and Total Recall to name a few. It’s his partnership with horror legend John Carpenter that he’s best remembered for, collaborating on iconic scores for Escape From New York, Big Trouble In Little China, They Live and more. Together they pioneered a synth-heavy style of scoring that had a deep influence on everything from horror movies to techno, utilising the cutting-edge synths and samplers of the era to create sounds that are still instantly recognisable today.
Of all the scores Howarth worked on with Carpenter, Escape From New York is one of the best. You can hear its downtrodden grooves and thick textures in the music of everything from Johnny Jewel to Emeralds, combining the dystopian future setting’s simmering dread with the swagger of a Western soundtrack. For the past few years Howarth has been performing the score live, and on October 30 he will appear at London’s Union Chapel to play the soundtrack in its entirety. The following night, he will play a set of his scores for Halloween II through VI, in which he took Carpenter’s iconic theme and added his own spin to it.
In advance of Howarth’s performance, he recounted to FACT the stories behind some of his key works.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
“Good sound design is really taking anywhere from two to six sounds, lining them all up, stacking them so they happen all at the same time and getting a nice blend. The new sound effect is really made out of several bits and pieces, but you don’t know what it’s made out of any more and it becomes a new thing.
“My only experience making sound effects prior to Star Trek was on a student movie for my wife Melody who was at UCLA. I knew nothing, I was just going for it. When I was at high school I was an art student – I was going to be a painter or sculptor and a musician on the side. I was already an image person when I was asked to make the sounds for movies, so that comes a lot more intuitively than writing a three-minute hit.
“I got a Teac 1/2” eight-track as part of my sign-up with Star Trek, and I modified it to have a varying speed. So that became my sampler. I would use to speed things up and slow them down, make them go backwards and multitrack stuff. I’d make loops out of things with 1/4″ tape that ran around the room through different microphone stands, so the loops were… oh golly, 60 or 80 feet long. But that way it was a nice long loop and I would re-record that into the eight-track and manipulate it, so I really got into tape art before there was digital sampling. It was a combination of analog synths and tape art that was really the foundation of my sound effects work.”
Escape from New York (1981)
“On the Escape From New York score I brought the Linndrum in as one of the first tools, as there was gonna be a rock and roll element to it – we wanted drums. Roger Linn had just come up with the LM-1 and I heard about it, I literally went over to his garage and said: “Roger, I’m doing this movie – I need one of these things.”
“It was recorded prior to MIDI, so we had to be better musicicans! There was no cut and paste. Let’s say we were working on something at the end of a cue that was three minutes long – because of the way the Linndrum clock worked you had to go back to the beginning, start the tape recorder let the Linndrum grab the signal, start making the clock pulses and sit there for two minutes waiting to get to the part you wanted to – you couldn’t just punch it in.
“For my live performances of the score I’m re-recording the whole thing using soft synths because there’s so much more we can do with these machines now, and the recordings of the day were tape and analog synths. I’m not changing it a lot, but I’m upgrading the beats and the rhythms, because it was originally pretty basic stuff. The soft synths are very convenient – when I do my live shows it’s basically a laptop, my MIDI keyboard and a guitar with MIDI on it. However, I’ll agree that there’s still something about an analog machine with knobs and the discovery of patching things together and having something happen that you didn’t expect because you were just mechanically playing with stuff.”
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
“I worked on the Well of Souls scene – the scene with the snakes where the statue falls over – and I remember literally smashing bricks and rocks in the studio to make recordings of those things. There was no library to speak of because the older sound effects from the Paramount library were scratchy and not high quality, so we started making all our own sounds and building our own library. For the snakes we were using masking tape being pulled off glass. Now those libraries have been digitised and put into big databases, and you have all that stuff to pull from.
“Now you’ve got all these plug-ins that are amazing – you can manipulate the sound and do stuff now that you could never do with the older gear. I love the digital palette that’s been created, but I still use the intuition of the old days. There’s something about the restriction that was actually creative, productive and gave focus versus just having everything in the world at your fingertips.”
“I say to Steven Spielberg: “Steven, you got any idea what you would like [for Carol Anne’s voice that comes out of the TV]?” So he looks me straight in the eye and he says: “How about Earth to Venus?” And of course it’s Steven Speilberg, you don’t say anything. “Oh man, that’s a great idea, thanks!” I got in the hallway and I started to sweat – I mean I had no idea what he was talking about. This is Steven Spielberg and I am now on the dime to create this sound. I went back to my studio and fooled with my Eventide Harmoniser, but it was too digital. It wasn’t until I was riding in my car and Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ came on that I had the idea. There’s a break in that song where they go kinda psychedelic and when Robert Plant sings there’s this little pre-echo that goes “you need… you need” “my love… my love”, and I say: “That’s it, Earth to Venus, that’s what he’s talking about!” The idea Spielberg was talking about was hearing it come from a foreign dimension into the scene.
“So I took the little girl’s voice and put it backwards through the tape recorder into some spring reverb and fooled with the speeds on the eight-track and recorded two backwards passes. Then I put another version going out to the surround, so that each word kind of passed through the room a bit like a Doppler effect. I turned that in and I was saved – that became the effect in the movie. Now that’s iconic – whenever you do a voice from another dimension that’s exactly the sound you do, you hear it in a million movies. I eventually talked to the engineer from that Led Zeppelin session and it was actually headphone bleed – there was another take running on headphones on the floor and it bled into Robert Plant’s recording. They loved it so they kept it.”
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
“Frank Serafine, John Paul Fasal and myself first referred to WW2 movies [to make the torpedo sounds] then started experimenting with making underwater recordings, so we got hydrophones. They’re a little tinny, so we all got smart and started taking studio microphones and putting condoms over them, so you had a watertight studio microphone you could drop in the water [to record speedboats]. But it still didn’t have any low end, because in water sound travels 10 times faster. So instead of a big and lumbering echo, everything sounds like tight digital delays.
The reality of it wasn’t that exciting, so we took with the best recordings of the speedboat going by from an underwater perspective and put it in my Synclavier sampler and started layering things up, doing speed-ups and slow-downs and multi-phonic things. One of the great tools was to take a sound effect on pitch and put it into the keyboard and be able to play that same sound effect in octaves and fifths at the same time, so you’d do a timing thing where you’d make a much bigger sound out of a normal sound.”
They Live (1988)
They Live was the last score I did with Carpenter – we were pretty comfortable by then. I had my Synclavier system and my analog synths all connected with MIDI and there was an analog 24-track machine we recorded to. We had synchronisation between the film and the 24 tracks so you could watch the movie and record, and we were making these big MIDI stacks so you could play one note on one instrument and fire up nine synths at the same time – E-mu Emulators, Kurzweils and the Prophets and all the drum machines – we had the full flotilla there.
We started on the opening scene [where Roddy Piper arrives in Los Angeles], this real ‘down and out’ moment – so Carpenter thought a blues score was the right mood for that movie. We started out making that first blues theme just to start the movie, which established where the movie was gonna go. At that point the Synclavier was the best sampler we had and it had the best samples, so the saxophone that’s in that piece is sampled – the harmonica, guitars, bass and the drums are all sampled. I just remember putting my first 100kb sample into the latest Synclavier and thinking: “I gotta have one of these.” At the time it was really the NASA of samplers – it was 100k sampling, it had 64MB of RAM as opposed to 8MB so I had minutes of sample instead of seconds.
I remember there was this moment when we got to the middle of the movie and there’s this scene where Roddy puts on the glasses and sees all the signs – “Obey”, “Stay Asleep”. There was a subliminal voice that we wanted to put in there, so I sampled Carpenter’s saying “sleep” and “obey” and the various words that are put in subliminally. It was like painting to the movie. We’d just start rolling and every day get together for a session whenever he was available. It’s interesting, I’ve seen a lot of shows since that show homelessness in LA and they do exactly that kind of music – it established this sort of homeless or “on the streets” theme, and it’s kinda scary too because that’s still there. The images of that movie from the 80s are really what we see today.”
Alan Howarth performs Escape From New York and Halloween II-VI at the Chills In The Chapel events at London’s Union Chapel on October 30-31 – find tickets here.